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Rays season preview: Steven Souza Jr.

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The news Rays outfielder will add a little of everything to the Rays roster.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

In 2011, Steven Souza Jr. made the decision to quit baseball forever.

Souza had just concluded a 50-game suspension for performance enhancing drugs when he was benched for the rest of the playoffs after violating team rules; driving his own car as opposed to travelling on the team bus.

In an article from The Herald in Everett, Washington, Souza's hometown, he describes his benching and decision to quit, saying, "I had broken team rules. I thought, 'How dare [Manager Matt Lecroy] do this?' We got in a confrontation on the field and I left. I quit. I called the farm director and said I was done."

He returned to Washington, and began contacting local colleges about the possibility of playing football; however, Souza had trouble transitioning away from baseball. He needed to make a change in his life that wasn't his career, but his overall outlook on life. To do this, he turned to God.

According to The Herald, Souza said, "I prayed about it and I said, 'OK, if this is what you want me to do, show me. Right now, if this is what you want me to do, let me know.'" He found a mentor in former big league player Brett Lillibridge and his family, and after a spiritual transition, he decided to come back to baseball and restarted his journey to the major leagues.

It took a while to get there, but Souza was finally added to the 40 man roster after the 2013 season. The Herald describes it as an emotional experience for Souza, as he had accomplished what he had originally thrown away years before.

2014

Souza's 2014 season will most likely be remembered for his amazing, no-hitter-saving catch on the final day of the regular season with the NationalsThis video, which has been replayed endlessly on highlight shows and the Internet, has brought Souza into public consciousness more than his impressive career minor league numbers have.

He was pushed fully into the spotlight when he was traded from the Nationals to the Rays in the Wil Myers trade last December. Even with only 26 career plate appearances at the Major League level, Souza will likely slot in as a starter in the outfield for the 2015 Rays, either in April or May depending on the team's evaluations of his readiness and contract requirements.

As Kiley McDaniel explains in his article breaking down the trade, Souza is a polarizing player. His early years in the minor leagues were underwhelming but his performance in the upper minors over the past three seasons has been stellar. There are clearly positives and negatives about Souza's performance, and McDaniel explains that the divide between scouts stems from which aspects are valued more.

McDaniel writes, "Some scouts are all-in on him, but most are at least a little dubious that Souza will be able to keep it up in the majors, due to his approach, size and career path."

Resident swing analyst Curt Wilson and Brett Phillips wrote a tremendous article two weeks ago examining Souza's mechanics at the plate. I fully encourage you to go check it out if you haven't already - it's been one of my favorite pieces this season. In the article, Curt and Brett explain how Souza's mechanics contribute to a lot of power potential. He generates this power through a high amount of torque from his core muscles and hands. I won't be able to articulate the analysis on every aspect of his swing as well as they did, but essentially, Souza, from a mechanical stand point, is an immediate upgrade over Myers. Souza has great power potential, drawing favorable comparisons to Albert Pujols and Jose Bautista, but will need to make small adjustments to maximize his upside.

Looking at him from a statistical perspective, there are certainly reasons to be reserved with Souza's projections. When he started blossoming in the minor leagues, he was two years older than the average age for each level because of his slow start to his career. Additionally, while we have limited advanced statistics for the minor leagues, we do know that his BABIP was astronomically high over during his final minor league seasons.

At his last three extended stays in the minors, Souza posted a .398 BABIP in Triple-A, .360 in Double-A, and .383 in High-A. According to Baseball America, none of these leagues appear to be an exceptionally hitter friendly league. This is a cause for concern as it suggests that he might have been getting "lucky" at each level of the minors, and BABIPs that high are almost never sustainable in the major leagues, but even if his near-.400 BABIP is unlikely to continue, there is reason to be optimistic about Souza sustaining an above-average BABIP in the majors.

An article by Chris Mitchell at The Hardball Times explains the statistics that are different kinds of "significant" at each level of the minor leagues, meaning that these statistics have at least some predictive power in determining major league performance. According to his study, BABIP is significant in all minor league levels except for lower-level rookie leagues. This supports the possibility of Souza being a player who can sustain a high BABIP over a long period of time.

Players that post elite BABIPs for three straight seasons are frequently star players, but there are certainly lower-level players who can record similar BABIPs. Here's a chart of the players with the highest total BABIPs for the last three seasons.

Player BABIP
Mike Trout .370
Chris Johnson .364
Joe Mauer .363
Andrew McCutchen .361
Dexter Fowler .355
Paul Goldschmidt .348
Torii Hunter .346
Jon Jay .346
Howie Kendrick .345
Miguel Cabrera .344

As you might have expected, Mike Trout is atop this list. But, there are some surprising players on this list as well, like Dexter Fowler, Jon Jay, and Howie Kendrick. A player doesn't need to be a stud to sustain a high BABIP.

Additionally, Fowler, Jay and Kendrick all had seasons in the upper minors where they, like Souza, posted extreme BABIPs, in some cases over .400. This is a small sample of players, but it does provide evidence that Souza's high minor league BABIP has the potential translate into a consistently high major league BABIP.

Fanpost in Minor League Ball showed that minor league strikeout rates are significant in determining major league strikeout rates, and Mitchell comes to the same conclusion in his article. The Fanpost takes this even further, and the author concludes that a player with a minor league strikeout rate over 22% faces a lower probability that of success in the major leagues.

Souza has been over this 22% threshold in the early part of his career, but has been decreasing his strikeout rate as he progressed through the minors. This suggests that there is optimism for his strikeout rate to eventually settle in the major leagues, possible even below an average rate.

In addition to examining significant statistics, Major League Equivalents can be used to evaluate minor league performance. This technique was created by Bill James in his Baseball Abstract in 1985. He believed that minor league performance could be adjusted and converted to reflect hypothetical major league performance with high accuracy. Since then, it has been improved and refined, and is published in Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster.

According to Ron Shandler's Major League Equivalents, Souza's minor league numbers indicate that had he played in the majors in those seasons, his stats would have looked like this:

Year Actual Level AB HR SB AVG BB% Contact%
2013 AA 273 12 16 .265 10% 69%
2014 AAA 346 13 19 .293 10% 75%

Souza's equivalents suggest that he would have been moderately successful had he been playing in the majors last season. However, these are much more descriptive than predictive, so we can't assume that his performance will be the same next year.

These conversions also indicate that Souza's contact rate would have increased from 2013 to 2014. While a contact rate of 75% is still below major league average, it is trending in the right direction, and supports his deceasing strike out rate.

2015

Fangraphs' Steamer Projections

Name G PA HR R RBI SB BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ BSR Off Def WAR
Steven Souza 122 500 18 59 59 20 9.0% 22.7% .172 .290 .247 .319 .419 .326 114 0.2 7.7 -7.5 1.8

The Fangaphs' Steamer projections seem pretty optimistic about Souza's performance in 2015. Only three players in all of baseball (Mike Trout, Carlos Gomez and Joc Pederson) are projected to be 20/20 hitters by Steamer, so Souza being nearly at that level is significant. Steamer also suggests that his strikeout rate will increase and his BABIP will decrease significantly, which all seem like logical conclusions.

The numbers don't line up perfectly with Steamer, but going by PECOTA, Souza's performance is pegged at the second highest contribution on the offense next season, for a team projected to 86 wins, trailing only Longoria. Souza is one of  only five players projected as 20/20 by PECOTA, including Trout, Gomez, Andrew McCutchen and George Springer. His slash line is also more optimistic, at .261/.336/.458 and a .311 BABIP.

Overall, it appears that Souza will have a solid season for the Rays in 2015. Regardless of how the batting average may turn out, he can provide a the ideal combination of speed and power.

There's been dissenting opinions on how good his defense is, making some wonder if he's any more reliable than Wil Myers might be expected to perform next season.The plausible conclusion is that the Rays have seen something that they love in Souza that they didn't think they had elsewhere.

Furthermore, Souza is expected to contribute immediately, which is crucial for the Rays.

In this regard, Souza is the opposite of Trea Turner, the shortstop prospect the Nationals received in the same trade. Turner was the 13th overall pick in the 2014 MLB Draft, and isn't expected to break into the majors until 2019, according to Fangraphs. When a player is farther away in development, there is less certainty about his performance and major league impact. In Souza, the Rays minimize risk of getting lost along the way, and gain a valuable contributor for the major league club.

His rookie contract status means he won't be a free agent until 2021, likely making a near-immediate leap into becoming an every-day outfielder for the Rays, with all the promise of making more plays like this:

Statistics used are from Fangraphs, Ron Shandler's 2015 Baseball Forecaster, The Hardball Times, and Baseball Reference. Information on Souza's history is from The Herald and The Washington Post.